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Seattle's Downtown

How much world-class art, architecture, and shopping can you handle in a weekend?

The Space Needle in Seattle picture
Photo credit
Photo: Tim Thompson/courtesy Seattle Convention & Visitors Bureau
Photo caption
The Space Needle helps define the Seattle skyline.

Seattle may be famous for bad weather and great coffee—but what really sets the city apart is its compact, walkable downtown. With a couple of high-profile additions to its jagged skyline and an increasingly vibrant arts scene, Seattle has a lot to crow about at the moment.

"Rock star" isn't a phrase usually associated with libraries, but Seattle's Central Library building is indisputably glam. Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas's gargantuan confection of glass diamonds caged in gleaming steel may soon be as recognizable as the Space Needle. Don't pass by without checking out the inside. The lipstick-red meeting-rooms level and the continuous spiral of nonfiction shelves are two highlights.

A 10-minute walk (mostly downhill) leads to another downtown star—the Seattle Art Museum. Robert Venturi's playful 1991 structure may not have the panache of the Central Library, but its stark, new, no-frills addition by Allied Works Architecture has almost doubled the museum's gallery space. After perusing its abundant cache of art—from African masks to abstract expressionist canvases by Mark Tobey—take the leisurely half-hour walk from SAM to its dazzling Olympic Sculpture Park on the waterfront. Once you reach the docks, it's a straight shot north on Alaskan Way, past ships and occasional harbor seals. Uptown Espresso at Pier 70 is a convenient spot to recaffeinate before wandering the park's zigzag paths to Richard Serra's 300-ton masterpiece, Wake, at the far end.

Back on Alaskan Way, a free bus whisks you south along the waterfront, with the Olympic Mountains curtaining the horizon, before turning inland to Pioneer Square. The area's refurbished brick buildings entice visitors to linger—at immense, creaky-floored Elliott Bay Book Company, leisurely Caffe Umbria, and Glasshouse Studio, where you can watch the next Dale Chihuly. Hop a free bus to downtown's main shopping area, where you'll find dozens of retail stores, including Barneys New York and the Nordstrom flagship store. All shopped out? The monorail will take you to the Space Needle in minutes.

This article was first published in January 2010. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.